Historical stroll: the Solvay family and how they left their mark on Brussels

14 April 2022
façade of the Solvay House

Solvay House is, without doubt, the most famous of the buildings left by the Solvay family in Brussels. Heritage enthusiasts had to wait a while, but this Art Nouveau masterpiece is now open to the public. In addition, the Solvay Library in Leopold Park has been granted a new art gallery: Triforium. All the more reason for us to take you on a journey that follows in the footsteps of the Solvay family in Brussels!

Leopold Park: first an Institute for Sociology, then a library

When we think of the Solvay family, the first person to come to mind is Ernest Solvay, the researcher, industrialist, financier and philanthropist. He was one of the key figures behind the creation of Leopold Park as a "Science park", and thought of science as his "fifth child"! Ernest created and financed three institutes at the turn of the 20th century: the Institute of Sociology, another of Physiology and a Business School. The first, which already had a library when it was created, is now known as Solvay Library and houses a vast reading room spread over two levels. Today, the building is an events and congress centre, and also contains an art gallery offering beautiful temporary exhibitions throughout the year.

The Solvay Library hidden in the greenery of the Leopold Park

Solvay House, the Art Nouveau residence of Ernest’s eldest son, Armand

Undoubtedly Victor Horta's most luxurious creation, this house is of particular importance as it is an insight into the bourgeois and worldly lifestyle of the time, through the prism of a family that had made its fortune in the industrial sector. Resident Armand succeeded his uncle, who died unexpectedly in 1894, as head of the "Solvay et compagnie" business. The interior is exceptionally well preserved — Horta designed it from the ground up, down to the smallest detail, including the beds, stools, chandeliers, door handles, etc.! The house is large, fortunately, as the staff was numerous: up to 12 people would have been at the family's service!

The ground floor and the first floor are the most striking in their splendour, as they are the reception areas. The second and third floors, the family's private quarters, are more sober. The basement and attic were dedicated to staff.

The already chic at the time Avenue Louise was very popular with the Solvay family. In 1888, Ernest's brother Alfred, co-founder and salesman of the Solvay company, commissioned Jules Brunfaut to build a sumptuous neo-Renaissance style house at number 137a on Avenue Louise. It was a house ideal for grand receptions! Sadly it has now disappeared... Edmond, Ernest's other brother, also owned a house on Avenue Louise, at number 178!

The graceful steps in the hall of Solvay House

Tournay-Solvay Park and its castle and La Villa Blanche, in Watermael-Boitsfort

Still little-known, Tournay-Solvay park is a magnificent green area, on the edge of the Sonian Forest. Alfred Solvay had a country house — or rather a country manor house — built there in 1880, in the Flemish neo-renaissance style, which was very fashionable at the end of the 19th century. Bought by the Brussels-Capital Region in 1980, the park was opened to the public one year later but the building was badly damaged by fire in 1982. Since then, it has been abandoned and is currently undergoing renovation work to become an inter-university centre of excellence for physics.

La Villa Blanche, built a little later in the Art Nouveau style, was the Solvay family's guest house. Today it houses the European Foundation for Sculpture.

The former house of the head gardener in Tournay-Solvay Park, two people passing and a dog playing in the grass

Solvay Brussels School of Economics and Management, Solbosch

The Faculty of Economics and Management of the Université Libre de Bruxelles. This faculty's predecessor was the Solvay Business School, which was founded at the beginning of the century in Leopold Park.

Since 2010, the faculty has been housed in a brand new building with a contemporary architecture and large glass openings.

some people sitting in the shade of the modern building of the Solvay Brussels School of Economics and Management

Hôtel Métropole

Eager to advance science, Ernest organised the first "Solvay Council" on 29 October 1911, in this prestigious hotel in the centre of Brussels. He brought together eminent scientists, including Marie Curie and Albert Einstein, whom he invited to discuss quantum theory together.

Group photo of the Solvay Council with Albert Einstein and Marie Curie, among others

The family sepulchre at Ixelles cemetery

In the Ixelles cemetery, you can see the burial monument intended as the Solvay family's final resting place. Designed in two stages (1894 and 1924) by Victor Horta, it is made of granite and features beautiful Art Nouveau curves.

the funerary monument for the family Solvay

Site of the former Solvay company and bust of Ernest Solvay

In some cases, the architectural traces have disappeared, but the memory remains... Staying in Ixelles, the "Ernest the Park" complex is an explicit reminder of the Solvay family's most famous figure. This site was once home to the headquarters of the Solvay company.

The bust of Ernest Solvay in Ixelles

Former property of Ernest Solvay in Ixelles

This complex of three houses and a town house was bought by Ernest who refurbished it in 1884. This vast property is surrounded by a park, itself enclosed by a wall, with a wrought-iron gate to access the property.

Former property of Ernest Solvay in Ixelles - Rue des Champs Elysées

Tenbosch Park

Tenbosch Park, known today for its remarkable flora, also owes its existence to the Solvay family. It is the descendant of the garden owned by industrialist Louis Semet-Solvay, brother-in-law of Ernest and Alfred, of which only the former caretaker's cottage at number 217b, chaussée de Vleurgat remains today.

The Solvay name also graces the streets of our capital. For example, on rue Solvay, which links two major roads in the commune of Ixelles, and on place Solvay in Schaerbeek, in the Gare du Nord district.

a woman sitting with her dog in flowery tenbosch park

La Hulpe Castle

Even though it lies outside Brussels, one can't help but mention La Hulpe castle, sometimes referred to as the "Domaine régional Solvay", a site purchased by Ernest in 1893 as a second home.

Le château de La Hulpe dans le parc ensoleillé